February 27, 2019

The Ultimate Guide to the Moka Pot

Even if you’ve never heard of it before, you’ve probably seen it before. The Moka pot is iconic, especially in Europe, and is largely considered the poor man’s espresso machine. More than just a regular old kettle, the Moka pot uses an ingenious design to press coffee through the bottom chamber into an upper chamber, producing a dark and rich coffee – if done right. If done wrong, however, the end result of using a Moka pot ends up being a dark and bitter mess, with an acidic aftertaste and lack of true aroma.

It’s quintessentially Italian but has made its way across the world through postage and, in more modern times, the Internet. Invented in 1933 by Alfonso Bialetti, and named after the city of Mocha, Yemen, Bialetti Moka pots continue to be most coffee aficionados’ first pick for an authentic Moka pot – but there are countless imitations and various brands selling the same or similar product. Made traditionally with aluminum but also sold in stainless steel, the Moka pot basically utilizes the same principles of a pressure cooker.

Heat causes water in the bottom chamber to push upwards, through a nozzle into a filtered disc of ground coffee. The water accumulates in the filter, permeating through the grounds, becoming thick and frothy through the combination of heat and pressure, before spouting out the top into the upper chamber. This produces a gargling sound for which the Moka pot is well-known, together with the light whistle of steam being relieved through a small rubber gasket in the bottom chamber.

Ever since its invention, the Moka pot was marketed as an alternative to the much more complicated method for brewing a cup of espresso. That being said, the Moka pot is not an espresso machine. While sometimes described as such, the coffee it produces is not the same as what you should come to expect from an espresso machine, lacking the same level of body, thickness, and crema. Similarly, you should not treat them the same with respect to the grind and ratio of coffee-to-water.

Not the Stovetop Espresso Maker?

A Moka pot produces coffee utilizing the same principle as an espresso machine, but on a much smaller and simpler scale. The process is superficially the same, and technically similar, but it’s the pressure used, the concentration of the coffee, and the end result that set these two methods far apart.

A Moka pot is composed of an upper chamber with a spout, a bottom chamber, and a metallic coffee filter with a nozzle attached under it, through which the boiling water is fed straight into and through the filtered coffee. You pour ground coffee – drip-fine ground, not espresso-fine ground – into the filter, using a finger to keep the coffee level. You do not press the coffee down into the filter. This is the first difference.

An espresso machine works by way of highly pressurizing hot water (9-10 bars) and sending it through an extremely concentrated puck of finely-ground coffee. This puck is assembled in a portafilter, which is placed under a spout called a group head. Then, either by lever or button press, hot pressurized water is sent through the puck, producing a slow-drip of hot, concentrated coffee, with a signature crema (the light brown froth in each serving of espresso). Espresso is served in shots, typically as a single or a double (doppio). Other variations include the ristretto (a smaller shot of espresso made with less water but the same amount of ground coffee) and the lungo (same amount of ground coffee, more water). A ristretto is stronger but less bitter, due to a shorter extraction, while a lungo is less strong, but more bitter, due to a longer extraction.

A Moka pot does not utilize a piston or any other external force to send pressurized water through coffee. It also doesn’t utilize as much pressure (only about 2 bars) as an espresso machine. Nor does it utilize as much coffee. However, the end result when brewing coffee in Moka pot is still typically thicker and stronger than what you might have come to expect from a French press/cafetière, pour-over, or filter coffee.

Making a Pot of Coffee in the Moka Pot

It’s a bit tougher than you might think. But the gist of it is still simple. Best of all, the hardest part of making coffee is generally taken care of when using a Moka pot – you don’t have to measure how much water you’re going to need.

  • First, start off with the coffee. It’s best to grind your own coffee because pre-ground coffee won’t always give you the pot of coffee you’re looking for. However, if you don’t have a grinder, finely ground coffee will do.
  • If you do have a grinder, opt for a drip-grind. It should be about as fine as table salt. Not as fine as an espresso grind (which should be very fine and compact) and not as coarse as ground coffee should be for the cafetière, but a nice middle ground.
  • Then, pour some coffee into the filter. Don’t press down on it – you’re not looking to make a puck here. Use just enough coffee to cover the top of the filter and use your finger to level it.
  • Next step is the water. Your Moka pot should have an indicator for how much water you should use in the bottom chamber. Typically, you should fill the bottom chamber up to (and only up to) the rubber valve. Be sure never to cover the rubber valve. That’s where some of the pressure is relieved, and that won’t work if it’s covered.
  • Place the pot on medium heat. That’s about 95°C. Now here’s a big one: leave the lid up and be patient.
  • Once the coffee starts to come out of the top spout, turn the flame down (or the temperature down) to about half of what it currently is. If the water is exploding out of the spout, the flame is too big. If it’s barely coming out, it’s too low. Once the spout starts hissing, take the pot off the flame immediately.

This shouldn’t take longer than five minutes in total, but the time will depend on whether you’re using preheated water or room temperature water. Some prefer to use preheated water. All this affects is it speeds up the time for the water to reach a boiling point once again.

Dos and Don’ts

It’s very easy to make a bad pot of coffee. It’s very, very easy to make a bad pot of coffee with a Moka pot. Brew the water too long, and the end result will be bitter. Too much coffee, and it’ll be bitter. Too little water, and it’ll be bitter. Too much water, and it won’t boil properly. Too little coffee, and it’ll taste watered-down. Not enough heat, and it’ll over-extract. Too much heat, and it’ll taste burnt and without flavor or aroma.

A good indication that you probably didn’t do it right is if your end result has no crema, or if it just tastes unbelievably bitter. If you’ve never had a cup of espresso, you might be surprised at the strength of a cup of Moka coffee – it is meant to be a little bitter, and it’s certainly an acquired taste. But it shouldn’t be toe-curling. Here are a couple of dos and don’ts to keep in mind when making Moka coffee.

  • Do use clean, filtered water. You don’t want it to be mineral or tap water.
  • Don’t use high heat or leave the pot unattended. This is the kind of coffee where you have to be on standby.
  • Do clean your pot regularly.
  • Don’t fill the boiler past the valve.
  • Do use a coarser grind, but finer than cafetière grinds.
  • Don’t pack the coffee into the coffee filter. You’re not making a puck.
  • Do use low heat if you can’t properly control your gas stove for one reason or another.
  • Don’t let the super-heated steam come out of the bottom boiler, if possible. That means avoiding the hissing. This can take some practice.

Cleaning and Caring for the Moka Pot

Some people suggest simply washing out the upper chamber with some water, and leaving it at that, claiming that the coffee residue that builds over time lends itself to a better coffee over time. Others say that the residual oils will only serve to make future pots of coffee more bitter, and not better, and say it’s best to wash the pot out with mild soap. Either way, you’ll want to hand dry your Moka pot with a towel after rinsing it.

Use water and a sponge, and avoid using anything to scrape at the pot, especially the aluminum one. Do not under any circumstances rigorously scrub the inside of your Moka pot. Always be gentle, patient, and easygoing with it.

Finally, avoid banging the filter against the garbage can when getting rid of grounds. First of all, consider keeping your grounds for other purposes (like composting, cleaning, skincare, gardening, or cooking), and use a finger to remove the bulk of the grounds. Moka filters can be somewhat difficult to replace depending on your model. Be sure to keep an eye on your rubber valve, as well. They typically are the first thing to go after a few years of usage, and most Moka pots come with several replacement valves. Otherwise, you can buy plenty of Moka pot valves off the Internet.